How Elders Are Building New Communities

Apr 23 2014, 10:57am CDT | by

For decades, it’s been easy to answer the question of where we will live as we age. The options were few–our home or our children’s, a nursing home, or some form of large retirement community.

Not any more. Unsatisfied with the limited choices of the past, seniors are creating an extraordinary brew of options, inventing new forms of community as they go. Some are grassroots neighborhood-based organizations, such as the growing senior village movement. Others are more ad hoc, where small groups of people—perhaps old friends or even strangers who share some affinity—choose to live their old age together.

In her fascinating new book, With a Little Help from our Friends (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014), veteran journalist Beth Baker explores these new aging communities.

The nature of experiments is that some will succeed and many will fail. Beth is too good a reporter to pretend the alternatives she describes are all better than traditional retirement communities. As she notes, a continuing care community might be an ideal solution for many. And some non-traditional communities she discovers are pretty grim.

For instance, she visited a facility that rented apartments to gay and lesbian seniors and advertised group activities, community dining, and other services for an active aging population. By, according to residents, the owner was non-responsive at best, community dining happened only when a resident bought pizza for the house, and group activities were non-existent.

Similarly, housesharing, where two elders agree to share space, chores, and costs, can be a terrific solution for people who are well matched.  But it can founder on the shoals of unmet expectations or incompatible preferences. What do you do when your housemate wants to keep the thermostat  at 72 degrees—a temperature you think is an immoral waste of energy?

But mostly, Beth (who is a long-time friend) tells the stories of elders who have found successful new ways to live and are creating their own communities along the way.

Some of the models she shows us have been around for decades. Communities without Walls in Princeton, N.J. was an early example of a local non-profit that provides a framework for people to help one another as they age. Hope Meadows was created at an abandoned air force base in Rantoul, IL in 1994. There, in return for reduced rent, elders help care for 36 kids who are living with adoptive families in this invented community.

In my own book, Caring for Our Parents, I wrote about the birth of Capitol Hill Village in Washington, D.C. Beth checks in five year later and describes a thriving neighborhood-based group that’s now become a—pardon the pun– mature organization.

But community non-profits are just one model that Beth explores. She also looks at many forms of communal living, such as naturally occurring communities where elders living in the same neighborhood or apartment building agree to share services. For instance, they could all chip in for a social worker who’d be available to help the entire community. And she looks at co-housing, where people move to an apartment building or development with the intention to share such services.

Beth also explores some for-profit alternatives, such as Full Circle in coastal Maine.  For a monthly fee, the firm provides a wide range of assistance, from high-tech monitoring to paid caregivers and volunteers to help people remain in their homes. Full Circle raises issues about privacy and the use of volunteers for a commercial firm, but participants seem to love it.

These are not just uplifting stories. They illuminate a critically important issue: With declining support from traditional families and government, elders will have to invent their own mutual support systems.

As the Boomers age, they will have fewer family members to care for them, thanks to their longer lives, fewer children, more divorces or their choices to never marry. Many will simply not have the money to live alone in their own home or in an assisted living or continuing care community. And in our current politics, government’s role in providing aging services and supports is shrinking.

That’s the reality. And it means that we are going to have to invent our own supports as we go. In her important and readable book, Beth shows us how some elders are doing just that.


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